Protest Roars to Life at Chicago NATO Summit in Face of Violent Police Crackdowns
Photo Credit: Molly Knefel
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
For weeks, people have speculated over the potential for a blooming “American Spring” this weekend in Chicago, when thousands were expected to come protest the meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the end, it might be more appropriate to speak of a newly born American Summer, as demonstrators were dosed with unseasonably warm 80- and 90-degree weather in a weekend that felt more like July than May.
Meanwhile, the sun was not the only source of heat, as the Chicago Police Department welcomed the predominantly peaceful protesters with flailing batons, dozens of arrests, baseless terrorism charges, and an attempted vehicular manslaughter. Despite this spate of state repression, spirits remained high throughout, with many demonstrators staying out into the wee hours of the night Sunday, in solidarity with arrested comrades.
The lead-up to the summit was replete with fear-mongering, driven in part by the city’s political elite and promulgated by the “no questions asked” corporate press. Back in January, Chicago Fraternal Order of Police president Michael Shields warned of “professional anarchists” coming to town with an eye toward disrupting business as usual. Meanwhile, mainstream press outlets continuously spoke of the threat posed by potentially rowdy demonstrators, often evoking imagery from the 1968 DNC protests in the process (despite that violence being initialized entirely by police, and not protesters). Just last week, the local NBC affiliate ran a segment titled “Beware the Black Bloc” to help drum up a little last-minute hysteria before the weekend.
These efforts at scaring people away from the streets ultimately proved futile, as tens of thousands of protesters participated in various actions through the course of the weekend. The National Nurses Union was responsible for organizing the first of the large-scale demonstrations on Friday afternoon, when roughly 5,000 people crowded into Daley Plaza to support implementation of a “Robin Hood Tax” on financial speculators. A series of speakers including Nation writer John Nichols, long-time activist Tom Hayden and local organizer Andy Thayer readied the stage for headliner Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine fame. Morello, who has played at Occupy events throughout the country, said he was proud to be surrounded by nurses who fought diligently for their right to protest in spite of a permit revocation just weeks before the event. He noted that the nurses “looked the mayor dead in the eye and...said, in the words of the old 1990s spiritual, 'Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!'"
After the rally, many of the nurses joined a march of hundreds of occupiers and other supporters on an un-permitted march through the streets of downtown. The impromptu march zigzagged through the loop before dissipating amidst rumors of an attempt by police to kettle protesters at the birthplace of Occupy Chicago: the intersection in front of the Board of Trade. This proved to be the first significant un-permitted march over the weekend, and also the least contentious, owing perhaps to the presence of nurses on the march.
The following day, demonstrators delivered their message right to the mayor’s doorstep, as an approximately 800-strong march culminated at Rahm Emanuel’s north-side abode. That action was organized by the Mental Health Movement, with support from Occupy Chicago, and focused on admonishing the mayor over a recent spate of cuts to the city’s mental health clinics. Protesters used the occasion to draw a prescient connection between dwindling city services and the estimated $14 million the city was to spend on hosting the NATO summit.
Not all protesters believe that you can find justice simply through a more equitable apportionment of tax dollars. A growing segment of Occupy organizers identify as “anti-capitalist,” and many of those participated in a march later on Saturday that appropriately kicked off from the Haymarket monument. It snaked its way eastward through the heart of downtown at an hour where the “Loop” was eerily quiet due to highway and street closures coinciding with the passing of motorcades from O’Hare Airport to various hotels near the McCormick convention center. Police repeatedly kettled the roughly 400-strong march whenever the pace slackened enough to allow for it. This first occurred at the corner of Jackson and State and then at Michigan and Congress, adjacent to Grant Park. Police appeared set to commence mass arresting demonstrators at the latter location, before newly appearing protesters overwhelmed the rear of police lines.
At this point, mounted reinforcements abruptly arrived to a chorus of “Get those animals off those horses!” Protesters also alternatively echoed the newly popular Occupy chant of “A – Anti – Anti-capitalista!” while the march moved toward the Board of Trade. Another showdown with police ensued there, as I was shooed away by police who were un-swayed by my assertion that I was covering the march. After 20 minutes, protesters broke free and continued westward along Jackson in the direction of the Chicago River. Before the march could cross the bridge, police vans suddenly entered the crowd, brushing against protesters in the process. As one of the vehicles wiggled its way through, it ran over activist Jack Amico. The commotion stirred by this act of violence resulted in the end of the roving action, while Amico was loaded into an ambulance and sent to a local hospital before ultimately being transferred to jail for the remainder of the evening.
Shortly thereafter, police stopped and searched two of the most recognized live streamers in town for the event. Tim Pool and Luke Rudkowski were riding together in a vehicle on the near south side when officers pulled them over with weapons drawn. Both individuals were live when the incident occurred so that video footage is available. While neither was ultimately arrested, fellow live streamer Johnathan Ziegler was not as fortunate the following day, as he was among 45 people arrested during the mass march on Sunday. He was released in the early morning hours on Monday, though nothing else was known about the details of his charges by press time.
Meanwhile, the most egregious case of police intimidation came via the trumped-up terrorism charged against three Occupy activists last Wednesday. Brian Church, Jared Chase and Brent Batterly were arrested after a raid of the home they were staying in, during which police confiscated what they claim was equipment to make Molotov cocktails. The men argue that the kit was actually used for beer-making. Meanwhile, the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) claims that police “broke down doors with guns drawn and searched residences without a warrant or consent.” As with the ensuing harassment of live streamers, police appeared to have singled out activists they deemed as being integral organizers. At the same time, they know they can sell the public on the seemingly absurd terrorism charges thanks to months of manufactured hysteria about scary anarchists coming to town with the intent of doing battle with police.
As in 1968, the street war was entirely initiated by police. Superintendant Gerry McCarthy broke a promise made earlier in the week to not deploy riot police. When the major Sunday march kicked off from Grant Park, officers lining the parade route wore their regular attire. However, as protesters exited the high-exposure area downtown, riot gear became increasingly ubiquitous. If anything, this provoked protesters, some of whom chanted, “Take off that riot gear! I don’t see no riot here!”
Indeed, the march was exceedingly peaceful until it reached its final destination on Cermak and Michigan avenue, about two blocks away from the summit site at McCormick place. While police claim the march was only 2,000-3,000 strong, pictures clearly demonstrate that attendance was many times greater. Various estimates from organizers ranged from 10,000-40,000 with my personal opinion being that 20,000 seemed about right. Throughout the length of the three-mile trek, the crowd filled up four-six full city blocks.
Leading the charge were about a dozen members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who threw back their medals at the completion of the march. Among them was a man who fell victim to the domestic front of the “War on Terror” last fall at an Occupy march in Oakland: Scott Olsen. Before throwing his hardware down Cermak Avenue, Olsen told the rally: “These medals, once upon a time, made me feel good about what I was doing. They made me feel like I was doing the right thing. Then I came back to reality, and I don’t want these anymore.”
After IVAW completed their presentation, they informed the crowd that the permitted rally was finished, and that they should dissipate to the west down Cermak. In response to the order, a contingent of Black Bloc protesters began chanting “But NATO’s to the East!” Other event organizers repeated the command to leave the intersection and to respect IVAW’s desire to keep the protest peaceful. Meanwhile, police deployed an L-Rad machine to issue a formal dispersal order.
The vast majority of attendees departed as instructed, leaving 1,000-2,000 people behind. A portion of the remaining crowd then pushed against the police line going eastward, and the batons came crashing down upon the skulls of a number of demonstrators that led the way. The police line pushed protesters out of the middle of the intersection, westward down Cermak. They then placed the L-Rad on perpetual repeat, though the machine never blared piercing music as it has at other protests.
City and state police reinforcements arrived in short order, the latter carrying batons the side of baseball bats. Meanwhile, officers gradually kettled the remaining demonstrators into a small area of sidewalk, and arrested a couple dozen people in the process.
Through most of the post-rally confrontation, protesters were vastly outnumbered. The excessive show of force by the city even led CNN reporter Don Lemmon to comment on video of Chicago police wailing away on the skulls of protesters as such: “I cannot imagine being any of those people who are on the ground or in front of those police officers...Does anyone deserve that?”
Some of the major march organizers from the Coalition Against the G8/Nato War and Poverty Agenda (CANG8) were visibly frustrated by the refusal of so many protesters to disperse when ordered. Andy Thayer, who has been an extremely visible member of the coalition, repeatedly implored people to leave via bullhorn. At one point he yelled, “The permitted protest is now over,” and a young man clad in black responded, to some fanfare, “If you have a permit, it’s not a protest.”
A majority of those who stayed on to engage in civil disobedience were occupiers from various parts of the country. These are people who stole the national limelight by implanting themselves in our public parks without asking permission first. The spirit of this movement is rooted in not playing by the same rules of the mainstream liberal protest groups. They see their freedom of speech as something innate, more so than constitutionally provided, and find it absurd that one need ask permission to speak.
What’s more, confrontation creates a spectacle that draws press attention. CNN et al. would not have stayed on to cover the rightly angry masses had they simply dispersed and gone home. The television viewer would not have been made aware of this widespread public resentment had they treated this demonstration like it was the protest version of a St. Patrick’s Day march.
Instead of dispersing, the movement held strong. They stayed until forcibly moved out by the mass of storm troopers. And then, they did not go home. They merely took it back to the streets of central downtown. They marched back up Michigan Avenue and stopped in front of the Art Institute for a while. A light drizzle began to fall, and protesters responded by dancing in the rain.
They then headed out toward the site of Monday morning’s direct action: a march from Union Park to Boeing headquarters. Occupy Chicago will visit these merchants of death because they are the recipients of tens of billions of dollars in largesse annually, which contributes immensely to the persistent acceleration of wealth upwards to the 1 percent.
The movement does not stop moving because there are too many injustices to address in this increasingly stratified country. There is too much work to be done for the protesters to go home at the end of their permitted march. The occupation, quite literally, is not leaving. The American summer has roared to life.